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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Zavino - Artisan pizza in Midtown Village

Wow, is this toasty feeling evidence of Philly's pizza wars heating-up? Oh, wait... it's just that we're sitting a little too close to the 900 degree oven in Zavino, the latest contender in the long-overdue craft-pizza trend that's finally hitting Philadelphia. Osteria got us going a couple of years ago with its finely-crafted Roman-style pizzas, and Steven Starr recently opened Pizzaria Stella, exploring a vaguely Neapolitan path. Now Zavino joins the scene, and if one visit can be any indication, they're off to a great start.

They have a serious oven, in this case it's gas-fired, as opposed to traditional wood ovens, but its design allows it to get hot enough to cook a pizza to a satisfying crisp in a few short minutes, the airy dough forming beautiful charred bubbles. Owner/chef Steve Gonzalez helped open renowned Sullivan St. baker Jim Lahey's pizza place Co. up in NY, and it shows in the quality of the dough, which strikes a delicate balance of lightness, softness, and crispness. More important, it has great flavor, it's not merely a platform for toppings.

The toppings are generally applied sparingly here, which is crucial for avoiding a soggy crust. I probably could have used a tiny bit more mozzarella on the Sopressata Pizza, but I really didn't need it, overall it was quite delicious. The intense flavors of the salami, olives and pickled onions work very well in measured doses, enhancing the fresh-tasting tomato sauce. This particular pizza has abruptly shot up to the very top of my favorites in the city, challenging even the fabled Lombarda at Osteria.

The Polpettini (pictured at the top) has tiny veal meatballs showered with shreds of provolone, over a tomato sauce base. The meatballs themselves are relatively mildly-flavored, so this one was comparatively subtle, but had a luxurious texture.

The Fratello features a larger dose of smoked mozzarella over a bechamel sauce base, broccoli florets studding the top. This would have been an incredibly boring pizza most places, but the good cheese and excellent crust elevated it to being pretty tasty. Not my favorite of the night, but not bad...

There's a basic Margherita, with just tomato, mozzarella and basil; a Rosa with no cheese at all, just sauce, garlic and oregano; a mushrooom-laden pie with bechamel; and one that simulates a cheesesteak with provolone, onions and the air-cured beef called bresaola. We've read about an artichoke pizza in the days leading up to the opening, let's hope that shows up before long! We're planning on just working our way down the list - We've often been surprised by pizzas that don't look that great on a menu, but turn out to be delicious.

Although it's a tiny space, Zavino manages to serve more than pizza. There's a selection of cheeses and cured meats, and a few antipasti, salads and small vegetable dishes. We tried all three of the meats: prosciutto, mortadella, and the oddly-named "Baby Jesus" salami. All three were quite good, but we really loved the Baby Jesus.

We also sampled the Roots and Greens with Bagna Cauda. This featured a tangle of frisée, a few leaves of mixed greens, thin slices of parsnip and radish, along with their tender tips, all lightly dressed with an intense, funky, garlic and anchovy infused oil. It's delicious, but it's going to stay with you for a little while, so make sure your dining partner has some too if you're going to be sharing airspace, or more, later...

The simple Roasted Cauliflower did not have the toasted Pine Nuts that should accompany the golden raisins as an enhancement, but was still pretty satisfying.

I believe the plan is for there to be a few non-pizza specials each day as well, but I have a hard time imagining getting anything but a pizza and a few of the small plates. But you never know, the flavors were assured enough on our first visit that we'd be willing to take a chance on whatever the chef is making.

The liquor license is not in effect yet, so I can't comment on the wine list, but if the free glass or two that they kindly offered is any indication, they should have some simple, satisfying, pizza-friendly selections.

Zavino is a welcome addition to Philadelphia's pizza scene, mostly because of the excellent crust, but also some more mundane reasons: it's conveniently located, and open late (Sun-Wed 5pm-11pm, Thr-Sat 5pm-2am.) The biggest downside is that it's pretty tiny, and as good as it is, I predict that it's going to be very hard to find a seat here. So I'll resign myself to off-hours, but unless there's a line out the door at all times, you can be sure that I'll be going back often.

112 S. 13th St (at Sansom)


  1. Diann2:05 PM

    those photos turned out beautifully, given that you were using the iphone camera!

  2. Thanks! I never imagined that I would be satisfied with photos from a phone, and I certainly still prefer to shoot with a "real" camera (these are a little flat and grainy.) But hey, when I can't practically lug the big rig around, I'm glad I can still get something, if there's half-way decent light.

    So, with a little perspective, what did you think of their pizza?

  3. Diann5:47 PM

    I flat-out loved the sopressata. Perfect balance of salt from the meat and olives, tanginess from the onions, and a good ratio of cheese-to-other ingredients. And the crust is awesome. I actually prefer their crust to Osteria's -- I would eat Zavino's crust plain, all day long -- although for overall pizza quality/topping combinations, Osteria still wins.

    I think I got overly excited about the meatball pizza; the meatballs were extremely tender, but also a little one-dimensional in terms of flavor. I think veal/pork/beef meatballs would have been better.

    The broccoli pizza could have used some fresh tomato, as Jamie aptly pointed out, and I wish the broccoli had been more caramelized/crispy, but I'm just nitpicking.

    Summing up: I've been raving about Zavino to anyone who will listen due to the combination of (a) tasty, slightly chewy, slightly crisp, bubbly, spotted crust and (b) price! Can't beat $10-$13 for that quality.

    (I liked it better than Amis... but that's a subject for another day.)

  4. it's the best pie in the city. i actually loved the veal meatballs. this place is so simple and well put together. no need to go back to stella.

  5. JimmyJohns9:28 PM

    Agreed... Stella = Overrated.

  6. I should say that I did generally enjoy my pizzas on all three visits to Stella, but I think the dough/crust at Zavino is much better, and so far, very consistent, which has been lacking at Stella.

    I think it's great that we finally have some choices, and I will still find reasons to go get Osteria pizzas, Stella Pizzas, even Slice pizzas. But Zavino is certainly my current favorite.

  7. Anonymous10:32 PM

    THAT is THE SHTUFF!!!!!
    I think the pictures and the review were enough to convince me that FINALLY we have something that compares with what is available in North Jersey and The 5 Boroughs. That style of pizza is not executed well at Stella, imho.